The Chicago Bear team that Jack Pardee led to the National Football League playoffs in 1977 did not possess the overall talents of the current Bears, who have only an outside chance of gaining the playoffs this year, said General Manager Jim Finks.
But this team, unlike the Bears of two years ago whose fortunes also turned in midseason, has gone through a string of injuries to key offensive players.
They played only a 14-game schedule in 1977, but the significance of what Finks means is not lost when he says, "The club you saw in 1977, with the adversity this club has had, wouldn't have been 9-5. Our prospects 1 through 54 (including players on injured reserve) are the best since I've been here."
They've had to be:
After Coach Neill Armstrong benched quarterback Bob Avellini, the Bears thought they had a solid quarterback in Vince Evans, who started three games, then suffered a severe infection in his back that side-lined him for the season. Avellini returned, but was yanked in favor of Mike Phipps after throwing three interceptions against Minnesota. The Bears have won six of seven games since then.
Fullback Roland Harper, who found time to gain 997 yards last season when he wasn't leading the blocking for star runner Walter Payton, went out early -- in the season-opener. His backup, John Skibinski, also was injured. So now, Dave Williams, who was signed as a free agent, starts at fullback.
When wide receiver Steve Schubert, also the punt returner, suffered a knee injury against Tampa Bay two weeks ago, he was the third Chicago flanker to be placed on injured reserve this season. The other two were Golden Richards and James Scott.
So it was no wonder these Bears could not score a touchdown offensively against the lowly Green Bay Packers in two games this season and trail the Washington Redskins by 33 points in net differential going into the final week of the season. The Bears think their best playoff shot is by winning the NFC Central title, which means they have to beat St. Louis here Sunday while Tampa Bay either ties or loses at home against Kansas City.
It is defense that has kept the Bears in contention. They have intercepted 20 passes in the past seven games after grabbing only seven in their first eight contests, after which they had a 3-5 record.
The eighth game was against Minnesota. It was a loss but Armstrong sees that game and the next against lowly San Francisco when Chicago converted a fourth-and-11 play into a 48-yard touchdown pass, as the turning points of this season.
"The Minnesota game turned us around," Armstrong said. "We rolled up 496 yards, but we let those guys return six kickoffs for 189 yards. It brought into focus you don't win it with offense; you don't win it with defense; you don't win it with special teams. You have to have all three.
"Then, against San Francisco, it was fourth down and a season to go and Mike Phipps throws a touchdown pass to James Scott. We learned how to win and the Minnesota game taught us something as a team."
In some respects this about-face was similar to the 1977 turnaround, in which the Bears pulled out a 28-27 victory over lowly Kansas City with three seconds to play, went on to win the last five games of the regular season and make the playoffs, eliminating Washington from wild-card consideration.
But the Bears are certainly not the darlings of the Midway. One Chicago columnist writing on the Finks regime called this campaign, "The seventh season of his five-year rebuilding plan."
The team that won nine NFL championships under George Halas had fallen into disarray by the early 1970s.
Then came Finks, who fired Abe Gibron and brought in Pardee. The Bears, who had not had a winning season since 1967 -- Halas' final year on the sidelines -- had records of 4-10, 7-7 and 9-5 under Pardee, who then went to Washington.
"Neill was thrust into a very tough job," said Finks about the former Viking assistant. "The impression was that now the Bears would be 12-2 or 13-1. It didn't happen that way. We never really got all the parts together."
The Bears finished 7-9 that first year under Armstrong, losing eight straight games midway in the season.
"Once you get a group of athletes attuned to the personalities and temperaments of a coaching staff, they react and respond differently," Finks said. "You could have seen a period in which they didn't know how to react to each other."
Said Armstrong: "When you change coaching staffs and change the offense and the defense, it just doesn't pick up where it left off. It's a good working situation between coaches and players now. It takes time to develop that."